WASHINGTON -- Six of the nation's 10 largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions are coal-fired power plants in the South, but year after year Southern lawmakers balk at pushing utilities toward cleaner renewable energy.
Last month, Republican senators from the South provided about half the votes that defeated federal legislation to require power companies to get 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Nationally, almost half the states have adopted their own renewable mandates, but only one, Texas, is in the South.
Southern lawmakers -- responding to heavy lobbying from local utilities -- argue their region isn't conducive to solar or wind power like the sun-baked Southwest or the open plains of the West.
But many leading scientists and environmental advocates say Southern states have plenty of alternative-energy potential. Utilities have simply grown comfortable with cheap, dirty coal and haven't been forced to change, they say.
"If you look at other regions of the country where renewables have taken off, it's been because of mandates, and that's why you haven't seen it take off in the South," said Nicholas Rigas, director of the South Carolina Institute for Energy Studies at Clemson University. "Once the development starts it will be just as successful as it is in other states."
The South has long relied on coal for electricity. Its two largest utilities -- Atlanta-based Southern Co. and Charlotte, N.C.,-based Duke Energy Corp. -- produce about two-thirds of their power from coal, mostly burned in aging plants not yet upgraded with clean-air technologies.
Southern Co. puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other U.S. utility.
Its Scherer plant near Macon, Ga., for several years has been the nation's single largest source of the greenhouse gas, which most scientists believe contributes to global warming. Duke Energy isn't far behind, ranking third in carbon dioxide emissions, while the Tennessee Valley Authority ranks fourth, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Many of the companies' plants also rank among the worst in emissions of mercury, a neurotoxin, and other pollutants that cause smog, respiratory problems and acid rain.
The utilities -- among the largest political donors in Washington -- vehemently oppose federal mandates. They argue that "one size fits all" standards would drive up Southern utility bills and urge that new technologies be phased in gradually.
Southern Co., which reported profits of $1.6 billion in 2006, questions the existence of global warming even as other utilities acknowledge it must be addressed.
"If we are irrational about it and we cripple our economy or cripple our industry and we realize carbon dioxide wasn't the source of the problem, then we'll be real regretful," said Chris Hobson, senior vice president for research and environmental affairs at Southern Co., which owns Alabama Power Co., Georgia Power Co. and other subsidiaries.
But the demand for renewable energy is growing.
"Coal is the dominant source of global warming pollution," said Michael Shore, who directs Southeastern air quality programs at Environmental Defense, a private lobbying group. "It is critical that states in the Southeast embrace energy efficiency and renewables if we are to take responsibility for global warming."
The Energy Department said the proposal that failed in the Senate would have increased utility bills nationally by less than 1 percent through 2030. Renewable energy advocates acknowledge the South could see slightly higher increases, in part because the region's electricity rates are among the nation's lowest. But they say the South should be ready to meet modest new mandates.
Many Southern states already produce a small amount of power from hydroelectric dams. Although the region has relatively low wind speeds, a recent study by Georgia Tech and Southern Co. found promise for offshore wind energy production in coastal states.
The most potential could lie in the South's emergence as a national leader in producing energy from timber residue, grasses and agricultural waste. Biomass now accounts for 1.5 percent of the nation's power - more than solar or wind.
Steven Taylor, chairman of the bioenergy program at Auburn University in Alabama, said Southern states have a record of producing biomass from their vast forests and farmlands.
Although utilities still struggle to collect and transport the materials efficiently, much of the infrastructure has been put in place by the agriculture and timber industries. And most legislative proposals would allow utilities to "co-fire" biomass at modified conventional plants, eliminating the need for expensive new facilities.
"We've got the ability to generate a pretty good proportion of our power or liquid fuel from biomass," Taylor said.
Copyright © 2007 Associated Press